Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent Sean Davis: Will a Third Contract be the Charm?

The Steelers Joe Greene Great Performance Award aka Steelers Rookie of the Year award but named for Joe Greene carries a curious history. 

Some winners have authored Hall of Fame careers with the Steelers, such as Alan Faneca, Troy Polamalu and at some point, Ben Roethlisberger. Others, faded into oblivion like Delton Hall (who beat out Rod Woodson), Anthony Henton and Kendrell Bell. Some had good but not quite “great” careers like Louis Lipps or Kordell Stewart.

At this time last year, 2016 Joe Greene Great Performance Award winner Sean Davis appeared to be locked into that final category – he was one of the tweeners. Then he unexpectedly returned to Pittsburgh to start the 2020 giving him a shot at moving himself into the “good category.” 

He didn’t play enough to do that in 2020 and is now a free agent again. Will Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh to get a third shot? Let’s find out.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers selected Sean Davis out of Maryland in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Davis came to the pros with position flexibility, thanks to playing both safety and cornerback in college. Sean Davis was named the starting slot corner early in his rookie season before ultimately moving to strong safety.

Sean Davis spent 2017 at strong safety but moved to free safety in 2018 following the departure of Mike Mitchell. An injury and the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the 2019 season eventually made Sean Davis expendable, and he signed a one-year deal with the Washington Football Team last spring. However, Washington cut him and Sean Davis soon found his way back to Pittsburgh in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

Davis has started 42 games over five seasons with the Steelers. He obviously knows Keith Butler’s system and, to reiterate, has position flexibility. Speaking of which, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are set to enter free agency and both — particularly Hilton — figure to earn fairly substantial raises. With the cap-strapped Steelers looking to save money any way they can, maybe Sean Davis can be the surprising answer for the slot corner position in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

While often flashing great playmaking ability, Davis has also been inconsistent during his career in Pittsburgh. The Steelers decision to bring Sean Davis back was a telling, but what was more telling was the fact that Sean Davis almost never saw the field save for the season finale against Cleveland.

You can’t find a stronger sign that it’s in Davis’s best interest to move on and for the Steelers to do the same.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis in 2021

Davis should be fairly inexpensive to retain. The deal he signed with Washington last year was for $4 million, and I don’t see him being able to command anything close to that in 2021.

  • The Steelers could do worse than Davis in terms of someone with position flexibility.

At the very least, he provides adequate depth in the secondary and can do double duty on special teams. The Steelers need to find their bargains this year in free agency and Sean Davis would look to be one of them. 

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Ben Roethlisberger “Took One for the Team.” 3 Things Steelers Nation Learned

Ben Roethlisberger took one for the team. Making good on his pledge to do what was necessary for the Steelers to field a competitive team in 2021, the veteran starting Steelers quarterback agreed to a pay cut to the tune of about 5 million dollars and in doing so he is saving Pittsburgh 15 million dollars in salary cap space due to “voidable years.”

  • Ben will be back. The biggest question of the Steelers off season has been settled.

Now, what does it mean and what have we learned? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Big Ben is a Team Player After All

While this wasn’t the “Ben put his money where his mouth is” and take the veteran minimum salary to return scenario outlined here a few weeks ago, but this is nothing to sneeze at.

  • “Oh, but wait, he’s already cashed $253 million checks from Dan and Art Rooney.” Yes he has.

When was the last time you gave up $5 million dollars? Perhaps better yet, when was the last time you went to your boss and said, “You know what? I’ll take 5 thousand dollars less this year so that you can give raises to the rest of the team. ” Yeah, I’ve never done that either. Enough said.

Ben Roethlisberger gave back 5 million dollars, 5 million that almost certainly go to resigning other players in the Steelers locker room. Ben does have his faults, he might not be a perfect team player, but he’s a team player.

2. The Steelers Relationship with Roethlisberger is Changing

One of the more interesting and disturbing narratives circulating around Steelers Nation has been that Ben Roethlisberger is somehow hostile to running the ball and insists on running an offense that sees him throw the ball 50 times a game.

Those criticisms were legitimate and by definition debunk the “Ben is anti-run” argument. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has had a lot of say in how the offense has been run. He’s had a lot of autonomy, perhaps too much autonomy. He forced Todd Haley out and Randy Fichtner was hired in part to keep him happy.

Matt Canada’s promotion to offensive coordinator was a sign that this is likely changing. And the fact that the Steelers made no bones about the fact that Ben Roethlisberger would need to bend to meet their needs says a lot.

What says more is that the contract contains voidable years, which in pure business terms means this is a one year deal.

3. Salary Cap Hell Likely Becomes Salary Cap Purgatory

Between the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward’s restructure and Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, the Steelers now are under the projected salary cap of 280 million dollars.
That’s good, but the team only has 33 players under contract for 2021.

More work, in the form of restructures, or perhaps moves to waive veterans such as Vince Williams, remains to be done. Resigning Bud Dupree likely means that other teams will shy away form his torn ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be back either.

But the specter of the Steelers fielding an opening day roster that features multiple undrafted rookie free agents starting appears to have been averted.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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Does Randy Fichtner’s Firing Foreshadow Change for Ben Roethlisberger?

When asked about staffing changes at his post-season press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was coy:

We haven’t had any of those discussions. Change is a part of our business. I’ll acknowledge the possibility of that. We are just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. And so, it is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.

Apparently “pretty soon” must have meant “as I speak,” because less than 24 hours later news broke that the Steelers would not be renewing the contracts of (read firing) offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.

Steelers tight ends coach James Daniels also announced his retirement. None of these moves are a shock, but one might foreshadow far bigger changes to come.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger during happier times. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

Randy Fichtner first worked with Mike Tomlin in the late 1990’s when they both coached at Arkansas State University. He joined the Steelers staff in 2007 as wide receivers coach and kept a low profile.

After the 2009 season, when Tomlin resisted pressure to fire Bruce Arians, he shifted Randy Fichtner to quarterbacks coach. At the time, he was assumed to be the offensive coordinator in waiting. But Mike Tomlin passed over Fitchner in favor of Todd Haley when Art Rooney II forced Bruce Arians out in 2011. Fichtner again faded into the background.

  • Yet in the middle of the 2017 season, an unfamiliar face appeared on the Steelers sidelines.

Who was that bearded man talking to Ben Roethlisberger when the defense was on the field? It was none other than quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner who’d come down from the booth. Word was he was there to serve as a buffer between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley.

Whether it was because of Fichtner’s presence or not, Ben Roethlisberger went from playing the worst football of his in the first half of his career to playing the best football of his career. When the season was over and Todd Haley was fired, Mike Tomlin immediately promoted Fichtner

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Under Fichtner, the Steelers 2018 offense took some time to find its stride then enjoyed success in the middle of the season, only to falter when James Conner got injured. In 2019, Fichtner was forced to play Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges along with other 2nd line players and the unit struggled.

In 2020, the offense started strong, but the running game faltered during October, allowing defense to suffocate the short passing game.

Conspicuously enough during both 2019 and 2020 the Steelers offensive line began the season doing reasonably well in run blocking, only to see that part of their game slip well below the line by mid season.

  • That is likely the reason why Jason Sarrett also got a pink slip.

Jason Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive line assistant. In 2013, the Steelers offensive line had a horrendous start to the year, but steadily improved during the season. When offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired at season’s end Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it was Sarrett, and not Bicknell who’d mentored the young line along.

Sarrett didn’t get the offensive line coaching job during that off season, which went instead to Mike Munchak.

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

Based on performance, Tom Bradley’s dismissal is the only surprise. Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake who left after the 2017 season and the Steelers secondary has improved since his arrival.

Certainly, his tenure had its share of disappointments – Sean Davis’ shift to free safety was OK but he never recovered his rookie form; Artie Burns continued to regress and Terrell Edmunds, while improving, still hasn’t lived up to his first round potential.

But Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have blossomed under his guidance, and Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been difference makers for this defense.

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

It is no secret that the Steelers fired Todd Haley in large part to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. Nor is it a secret that he has a close relationship with Randy Fichtner, just as he had a close relationship with Bruce Arians.

But the fact that Randy Fichtner is gone indicates at the very least that the Steelers as an organization won’t bend over backwards to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy and to entice him to keep playing. Beyond that, this move could help hasten Roethlisberger’s retirement decision.

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Rebound or Reckoning? Steelers 26-15 Loss Shows Franchise Facing a Critical Crossroads

The Buffalo Bills defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-15, as the Steelers logged their 3rd game in 12 days. This is only the Steelers 2nd loss in 13 games, yet the feeling in Steelers Nation is nothing close to what one would expect for a team with a 11-2 record halfway through December.

  • Perhaps that’s as it should be.

It’s not so much that the Steelers lost to the Bills. It’s the way that they lost. This game hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s pre-half time pick-six. It was, as commentators love to tell us a “momentum changer.” The question now is this: Was this just a momentum changer for just this game or did it change the momentum for the entire season?

Taron Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bills

Taron Johnson’s hauls in his lethal pick six. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Contradicting the Conventional Wisdom: Steelers Strong for First 29 Minutes

Roll your eyes all you want. But in this scribe’s estimation, the Steelers actually looked pretty good for the game’s first 29 minutes. Was Pittsburgh perfect? Hardly.

  • Diontae Johnson promptly dropped the first two passes thrown to him
  • Eric Ebron dropped one thrown at him on third down, no less
  • Jordan Berry had punted five times before the 20 minute mark
  • James Conner had been stuffed for 1 yards, zero yards or negative yards several times
  • The Steelers had failed to turn a Mike Hilton interception into money

Clearly, Pittsburgh’s problems had not gone away. But it was also clear that the coaching staff had taken steps to address those problems. And those measures were working, at least on some level.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton recovers a fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Perhaps, best of all, late in the 2nd half Josh Allen brought the Bills into the Steelers Red Zone and some stout play up front by Cam Heyward and Steven Nelson in the secondary helped the Steelers force a field goal. Holding a 7-3 lead while on the road against an all but certain division champion with 1:42 left in the game hardly implies domination.

But when you consider that the Steelers were without Joe Haden, effectively starting their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers and had lost another starter in the first half, a 7-3 lead was a good place to be.

The Steelers had control. Tenuous control certainly, but control nonethless.

  • And Mike Tomlin, to his credit and as his habit, wasn’t content to settle for that.

Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back and proceeded to move the Steelers to midfield with just over a minute left to play. Then Ben Roethlisberger made a bad decision to force a throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster. He made an even worse throw. Taron Johnson took it to the house and put Buffalo up 9 to 7.

The game wasn’t over, but the momentum had changed.

Allen and Diggs Pull Pittsburgh Apart

The Bills got the ball back to start the second half and credit Sean McDermott and his staff for making the ever important “second half adjustment.”

Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs proceeded to pull Pittsburgh apart and in the process they burned 5 minutes off of the clock in their first touchdown drive. The Bills did it again the next time they got the ball, and by time the 3rd quarter was over, Buffalo was up 23 to 15.

Rally, Roethlisberger Fall Short

Things looked bleak. The Bills had scored two touchdowns and the Steelers had done nothing other than send Jordan Berry out to punt twice. But for whatever else you want to say about the Steelers, no one can say they folded.

Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers on the board early in the 4th quarter. Eric Ebron atoned for his previous drop by hauling in a 2 point conversion. Suddenly the Steelers were with in 8 points.
Sure the Bills responded with a field goal, but on paper a win was still within the Steelers grasp.

Alas, that was not to be. On third and long, Ben Roethlisberger tried to go deep targeting James Washington. Washington was wide open, but Ben Roethlisberger put the ball frankly in the only spot on the field were Levi Wallace could get it.

He did, and the Bills nickel and dimed the Steelers by running 12 plays to kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bills

Ben Roethlisberger passes during the Steelers loss to the Bills. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Rebound or Reckoning?

After the game Ben Roethlisberger minced no words, explaining “Right now, we’re not playing good football, and it starts with me.” When asked if he and the Steelers had time to right the ship, Ben did not blink, “I hope so. If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.”

The first time Ben Roethlisberger uttered the “R” word was after the Steelers 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. After his 5 interception debacle against the Jaguars in October 2017, he openly mused about “Not having it anymore.”

  • That sounded ominous at the time.

But Ben Roethlisberger responded by playing some of the best football of his life in the 2nd half of 2017 and that saved the season as Ryan Shazier’s loss left the defense reeling.

  • Can history repeat?

It would make for a nice story. But NFL season rarely evolve like movie scripts.

The reality is as simple as it is stark. The Steelers defense is depleted. Pittsburgh lacks both the running backs and the offensive line to field a balanced attack. All of that means that hope for any rebound rests squarely with Roethlisberger.

  • If he can deliver, the result will be worthy of a Hollywood movie.

If not, then perhaps its time for Pittsburgh to begin reckoning with how they will manage the post-Roethlisberger era.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: A’s (and not for effort) Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil miss a full week of class due to sickness only to completely ace the exam on his first day back, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt sacks Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week of practice due to COVID-19 restrictions, but he hardly missed a beat against the Bengals. Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect. He’s improving on his long balls but can still improve more. But playing without a running game, Ben Roethlisberger led 7 scoring drives while going 4 four touchdown passes in 5 trips to the Red Zone. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had another rough day, rushing for just 36 yards on 13 carries. Benny Snell did well in garbage time gaining 12 yards on 3 carries. Conner did catch both passes that were thrown to him and did well in pass protection. The Bengals schemed to stop the run, Conner had little room to run before the Steelers gave up altogether. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught two of six passes thrown his way although both catches converted 1st downs and put the Steelers in Bengals territory on scoring drives. Zach Gentry got on the field for 14 snaps. Neither of the tight ends helped much with the run blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson exploded for his first 100 yard game with Ben Roethlisberger, including a field flipper that set up his and the Steelers first touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches and kept the chains moving in short yardage situations while adding his own touchdown. After a quiet few weeks, Chase Claypool had 4 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. James Washington had two catches for 30 yards. Grade: A

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, almost. Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked by the Bengals, although they did hit him 8 times. Still, Roethlisberger had time to throw. The Steelers run blocking is another question altogether as it was AOWL thought the game against Cincinnati. As the weather gets colder, the Steelers are going to need to be able to the ball. They’ve struggled to establish the run over the last two weeks against teams with weak rushing defenses. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu’s return helped the Steelers limit the Bengals rushing attack, although Bengals running backs had some success. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had “quiet” days in terms of the stat sheet but logged 77% and 78% of the snaps on a defense that gave up 10 points. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led Steelers linebackers in tackles and his sack helped force a field goal, following the fake punt. That fake punt was needed in part because of a Bud Dupree sack. Vince Williams did his damage with 4 bone crushing tackles. T.J. Watt logged 4 quarterback hits and registered two sacks helping kill 2 second quarter drives when the score was close and Joe Burrow was earning his “Introduction to the AFC North.” Grade: A

Secondary
There are a lot of stats that you can pull out of the secondary play, but one stands out: 0-13 on third downs. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles, followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Steven Nelson defensed 1 pass and otherwise his name was not heard much – which is a good thing. Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. saw their first real playing time in the secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on 3 field goal and 3 extra point attempts. Jordan Berry boomed off punts. The Steelers kick and punt coverages shut down Cincinnati, clearly benefitting from Derek Watt’s presence. Ray-Ray McCloud gives the Steelers the type of return man weapon that they’ve lacked for a long, long time. The unit did get caught on a fake punt, but its impact was negligible. Still, the grade has to come down. Grade: A-

Coaching
For the past two weeks, Keith Butler’s defense has had to rely on big plays to provide big plays to deliver victory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but against the Bengals, the Steelers defense went back to basics.
Cincinnati did enjoy a little more success than the scoreboard suggests, but you can’t really sustain success when you fail to convert 3rd downs, and the Bengals failed at that 13 times.

The Bengals loaded up the line of scrimmage and dared Ben Roethlisberger to beat them and Big Ben beat them – badly. Let’s be clear, when your offense goes 4 of 5 in the Red Zone and outscores an opponent by 36 points a lot of things are going right.

  • Still, this is the third consecutive week the Steelers have failed to establish the run.

The Steelers tried, from various formations, including their “Jumbo” package and nothing worked. That’s got to be a concern for Randy Ficthner and Shaun Sarrett.

COVID-19 hit the Steelers hard, taking Vance McDonald from the lineup and preventing 4 other starters, including Ben Roethlisberger, from practicing. This came on the heels of a brutal 3 game road stretch. Had you come down from Mars, you’d have never of known that given the way the Steelers played this week, and that is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden after defending a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
Sometimes quarterbacks decide to “pick on someone.” Joe Burrow made his decision early, targeting Tyler Boyd, Brandon Tate and A.J. Green – a legitimate offensive weapons who happened to be covered by the same man. Not only were none of them a factor in this game because of the corner covering them, but this cornerback also batted away 3 pass and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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